The tear didn't heal, and the scar tissue that was formed complicated the injury and made it even serious. Nevertheless ... I was able to carry on with my military duties ... as long as two years afterwards, in the spring of '45, I was given a full month's medical leave so that I could go to Berkeley and have an osteopath, Dr. J. LeRoy Near, work with me.
Budge was born in Oakland, California, the son of Scottish immigrant and former soccer player John "Jack" Budge, his father had played several matches for the Rangers reserve team before emigrating to the United States, and Pearl Kincaid Budge. Growing up, he played a variety of Sports before taking up tennis. He was tall and slim and his height would later help what is still considered one of the most powerful serves of all time. Budge studied at the University of California, Berkeley in late 1933 but left to play tennis with the U.S. Davis Cup auxiliary team.
Accustomed to hard-court surfaces in his native California, he had difficulty playing on the grass surfaces in the east. However, a good instructor and hard work changed that, and in both 1937 and 1938 he swept Wimbledon, winning the singles, the men's doubles title with Gene Mako, and the mixed doubles crown with Alice Marble, a feat which he repeated at the 1938 US Championships. Budge became the first man in history to have achieved the "Triple Crown" at a Grand Slam event three times, eclipsing Bill Tilden who won consecutive Triple Crowns at the U.S. Championships.
Budge turned professional in October 1938, after winning the Grand Slam, and thereafter played mostly head-to-head matches. In 1939 he beat the two reigning kings of professional tennis, Ellsworth Vines, 22 matches to 17, and Fred Perry, 28 matches to 8.. That year he also won two major pro tournaments, the French Pro Championship over Vines and the Wembley Pro tournament over Hans Nüsslein. There was no professional tour in 1940 but seven principal tournaments. Budge kept his world crown by winning 4 of these events including the greatest one, the United States Pro Championship. In 1941 Budge played another major tour beating the 48-year-old Bill Tilden, the final outcome probably being 46–7 plus 1 tie. In 1942 Budge won both his last major tour over Bobby Riggs, Frank Kovacs, Perry and Les Stoefen and for a second time the U.S. Pro, crushing Riggs 6–2, 6–2, 6–2 in the final.
Don Budge joined professional tennis in 1939 and was unable to compete in the Grand Slams tournaments.
In 1942 Budge joined the United States Army Air Force to serve in World War II. At the beginning of 1943 in an obstacle course he tore a muscle in his shoulder. In his book 'A Tennis Memoir' page 144 he said:
This permanently hindered his playing abilities. During his wartime duty he played some exhibitions for the troops in particular during the summer 1945 with the war winding down, Budge played in a U.S Army (Budge-Frank Parker) – U.S. Navy (Riggs – Wayne Sabin) competition under the Davis Cup format : the main confrontations were the Budge-Riggs meetings knowing that both Americans were the best players in the world in 1942 just before being enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces and again when they came back to the professional circuit in 1945. In the first match, on the island of Guam, Budge trounced Riggs 6–2 6–2. On the island of Peleliu Budge won again 6–4 7–5. Riggs won the next two matches against Budge 6–1 6–1 (island of Ulithi) and 6–3, 4–6, 6–1 (island of Saipan). Budge confided in Parker his disbelief at losing two matches in a row to Riggs. In the fifth and final match on the island of Tinian, scheduled for the first week of August 1945, Riggs defeated Budge 6–8 6–1 8–6. This was the first time Budge had been beaten by Riggs in a series (Riggs also won 3 matches out of 5 against the amateur Parker, both holder and Future titlist of the U.S. amateur Nationals at Forest Hills) thereby giving Riggs an important psychological edge in their forthcoming peacetime tours.
After the war Budge played for a few years, mostly against Riggs. In 1946 Budge lost narrowly to Riggs in their U.S. tour, 24 matches to 22. The hierarchy was confirmed at the U.S. Pro, held at Forest Hills where Riggs easily defeated Budge in the last round. Next year Riggs stayed the pro king by defeating again Budge in the U.S. Pro final in five sets. Riggs then established himself as the World No. 1 for those two years. According to Kramer,
After retiring from competition Budge coached and conducted tennis clinics for children. According to Riggs' 1949 autobiography as of that writing, Budge owned a laundry in New York with Sidney Wood as well as a bar in Oakland. A gentleman on and off the court, he was much in demand for speaking engagements and endorsed various lines of sporting goods. With the advent of the Open era in tennis, in 1968 he returned to play at Wimbledon in the Veteran's doubles. In 1973, at the age of 58, he and former champion Frank Sedgman teamed up to win the Veteran's doubles championship at Wimbledon before an appreciative crowd.
In 1954 Budge recorded his last significant victory in a North American tour with Pancho Gonzales, Pancho Segura, and Frank Sedgman when, in Los Angeles, he defeated Gonzales, by then the best player in the world.
Budge was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport, Rhode Island in 1964. Budge is referenced in the 1977 Broadway musical, Annie, in the song "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here." The reference is technically an anachronism, as the story is set in 1933, at which time Budge was an undergraduate at Berkeley and had not yet achieved prominence. The tennis courts at Bushrod Park in north Oakland are named for Budge where he played as a youth.
In his 1979 autobiography Kramer considered the best player ever to have been either Don Budge (for consistent play) or Ellsworth Vines (at the height of his game). The next four best were, chronologically, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, and Pancho Gonzales. All of these sources were written after Rod Laver completed his second, and Open, Grand Slam in 1969.
In early 1986 Inside Tennis, a magazine edited in Northern California, devoted parts of four issues to a lengthy article called "Tournament of the Century", an imaginary tournament to determine the greatest of all time. Twenty-five players in all were named by the 37 experts in their lists of the 10 best. The magazine then ranked them in descending order by total number of points assigned. The top eight players in overall points, with their number of first-place votes, were: Rod Laver (9), John McEnroe (3), Don Budge (4), Jack Kramer (5), Björn Borg (6), Pancho Gonzales (1), Bill Tilden (6), and Lew Hoad (1). McEnroe was still an active player and Laver and Borg had only recently retired. In the imaginary tournament Laver beat McEnroe in the finals in 5 sets.
Budge is a consensus pick for being one of the greatest players of all time. He had a graceful, overpowering backhand that he hit with a slight amount of topspin and that, combined with his quickness and his serve, made him the best player of his time. E. Digby Baltzell wrote in 1994 that Budge and Laver "have usually been rated at the top of any all-time World Champions list, Budge having a slight edge." Will Grimsley wrote in 1971 that Budge "is considered by many to be foremost among the all-time greats." Paul Metzler, in his analysis of ten of the all-time greats, singles out Budge as the greatest player before World War II, and gives him second place overall behind Jack Kramer.
More recently, an Associated Press poll conducted in 1999 ranked Budge fifth, following Laver, Pete Sampras, Tilden, and Borg. Even more recently, in 2006, a panel of former players and experts was asked by TennisWeek to assemble a draw for a fantasy tournament to determine who was the greatest of all time. The top eight seeds were Roger Federer, Laver, Sampras, Borg, Tilden, Budge, Kramer, and McEnroe. In important polls, then, Budge has consistently been ranked in the top five or six. Perhaps only Tilden and Laver can boast such a high and long-standing critical assessment.
In December 1999, Budge was injured in an automobile accident from which he never fully recovered. He died on January 26, 2000 at a nursing home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, aged 84.
He gained the most fame for his match that year against Gottfried von Cramm in the Davis Cup inter-zone finals against Germany. Trailing 1–4 in the final set, he came back to win 8–6. His victory allowed the United States to advance and to then win the Davis Cup for the first time in 12 years. For his efforts, he was named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and he became the first tennis player ever to be voted the James E. Sullivan Award as America's top amateur athlete.